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Let's Tap Water Efficiency Before Spending on Treatment

THIS year, Congress can simultaneously promote cleaner water and save the United States billions of dollars. Impossible? Not if lawmakers add a ``best buys first'' approach to water treatment when they reauthorize the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act.

The path toward cost-effective water supply and pollution control is straightforward, but legislative efforts to date are missing it. The more efficiently we use water, the less treatment capacity we have to buy. Water utilities should exhaust cheaper water-efficiency options before spending taxpayers' money on expensive expansions of drinking water and wastewater treatment systems.

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Do not confuse water efficiency with rationing, Navy-style showers, or other unpleasantries of California droughts. Water efficiency means using new devices and techniques that save water while providing the high quality services people want - invigorating showers, sparkling dishes, pleasing landscapes - without significant lifestyle changes. And it's not just for arid regions.

Over the next several years, New York City will spend $240 million on rebates to customers who replace old 5 to 7 gallons-per-flush toilets with 1.6 gallons-per-flush models. Why? Cutting municipal water flows will eliminate the need for $800 million in waste-water treatment plant expansions and a new $1 billion pumping and filtration station for drinking water. Increasing water efficiency is obviously a best buy for New York.

Besides generating treatment capacity savings, greater efficiency often improves water quality. More water is left where it started, improving river flows or reducing inflow of seawater or other pollutants to overdrawn aquifers. Capacity freed up at existing sewage plants reduces the occurrence and duration of combined sewer overflows due to storm water surges. Home septic systems perform better. And money that would have gone to building new plants can be spent upgrading treatment at existing plants instead.

Many utilities have little understanding of water efficiency and are accustomed to managing infrastructure, not demand. The availability of federal dollars has often led utilities to throw money at capacity expansions rather than seek savings in their communities' water use. Now Congress plans to increase the pot without addressing whether the US is getting the most bang for its water-quality bucks.

Lawmakers can promote greater water use efficiency when they reauthorize the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act by using economic incentives to motivate integrated approaches to water planning. First, make state revolving loan funds available for efficiency improvements that displace expansions. Second, require utilities seeking federal funding for capacity expansions to first implement cost-effective water efficiency measures.

Congress should insist on good utility housekeeping practices that are cost effective virtually everywhere. Utilities should meter customers' water use, eliminate rate structures that reward increased use, require efficient fixtures in new homes and encourage retrofitting of old ones, and regularly seek out and repair leaky pipelines.

To ensure best buys, Congress should require utilities seeking federal funding to conduct ``integrated resources planning'' (IRP) - a fancy term for choosing, then buying options in order of cost-effectiveness.

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A common practice in the electric utility industry, IRP is now catching on with the most innovative and cost-conscious water utilities. IRP seeks least-cost solutions to resource problems by comparing all feasible alternatives. It evaluates the costs and benefits of constructing new supply and sewage treatment infrastructure, improving pipeline efficiencies, promoting water-efficient fixtures and landscaping, and other options. The utility considers the impact of each alternative on the entire water system. Where supply and sewage are handled by separate utilities, IRP calls for coordination.

IRP also involves the public as consultants, in effect, to the utility. Denver's current planning includes substantial public participation, in contrast to the closed-door process that led to the contentious Two Forks Dam proposal. The Denver Water Board believes that by involving potential opponents early on, a more broadly supported plan will be developed and a repeat of the wrenching Two Forks debate and Environmental Protection Agency veto can be avoided.

Would requiring IRP for federal assistance to treatment capacity expansions constitute another burdensome and unfunded mandate from Washington? Not if Congress extends federal funding eligibility to any IRP-selected measures, including water-efficiency programs. Moreover, if utilities buy the cheapest water system options first, they will stretch local and state dollars as well as federal funds.

The conventional approach to water problems - pour more concrete - is untenable in an era of dwindling budgets. But without IRP requirements for federal funding, making more federal money available for new water infrastructure will give many utilities a green light to waste public funds, to opt for the familiarity of more construction rather than the accountability of comprehensive planning.

Integrated resources planning could save the US billions by reducing both unnecessary construction and lawsuits over unsound water projects. Shouldn't we put limited water-quality dollars where they count most? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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